Getting Lost in the Details

I sat across from the couple once again. And once again we were discussing broken trust in their relationship. I asked the wife to share with her husband what it was like for her to try and trust him again. She shared many things but the first thing out of her mouth was that it felt unsafe. She trailed off into how she didn’t know what to expect as they move forward. She then talked about a recent scenario that led her to fear trusting him again. She spoke of the specifics of the situation, detailing things from her perspective of how things played out. She shared the frustration of the circumstance and how it caused further distance.

When she finished sharing, her husband jumped in with his take on the situation she brought up and the conversation headed in a familiar direction. They were no longer really talking about trust or what it was like for her to try to trust him (my original question). Instead they had gotten lost in the details. It was like water finding its familiar path. Once things started going, it was hard to even notice how quickly they flowed down the well-known track as they volleyed perspectives on how things went and words that were said. The frustration was mounting. They had gotten lost in the details.

As counselors, we too have to be careful not to get lost in the details. It is easy to do, and before you know it we are no longer counselors helping people toward knowing one another, but instead we are firefighters just trying to douse the current flame of conflict. What can you do in a situation like this? A counselor needs to be a very attentive listener. But a counselor also needs to be an investigator. We must explore the things said that reveal the heart.

Entry Gates

In the conversation between the husband and wife, something important was said and missed. The husband didn’t hear an entry gate into the heart of his wife. According to Paul Tripp, “An entry gate is a particular person’s experience of the situation, problem, or relationship.”[1] It is not the problem or the situation itself, but their experience of it.  Entry gates happen in the significant conversations when people take a small step toward vulnerability. The movement toward deeper openness happens because we all have a desire to be known and understood, but it is mixed with a fear of what it may mean to be open with another.

The husband’s oversight may not solely be about him learning to listen better. In a conversation it is risky to explore entry gates because of what it might mean to really know another person. We want to go deeper but we also can be afraid of what we may learn. We may not know what to do with it. It may touch on some of our own fears and insecurities. Before we know it, the situational details hijack conversational moments. We talk about communicating better, all the while keeping cautious space between one another. As Larry Crabb insightfully points out, “We devise strategies designed to keep us warmly involved with each other at a safe distance.”[2] This not only keeps our relationships distant, it also keeps us circling around the same arguments again and again.

The Missed Entry Gate

So what was the missed entry gate in this conversation? As you go back and look, it may be clearer. Her first words were some of the most vulnerable. It was just one word that likely packed a lot of meaning. When working with this couple I circled back to the word “unsafe.” I asked her to help us better understand what that meant. I asked her to tell us what being unsafe was like for her. It was at this point that she became most honest about her fears. She shared thoughts of deep questioning and fears of abandonment.

The Heart of the Matter

When her husband began to hear that it was less about the situation and more about what was happening in her heart, he had compassion on her and was able to learn more of the actual struggle she was having. This changed the focus from worrying about the situation and all the details to exploring the fears and hurts that his wife was dealing with that the situation had triggered.

When we take the time to explore the words people say and allow them to bring clearer meaning to their experience, we are using the wisdom laid out for us in Proverbs 20:5, “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws it out.” As counselors it is important that we explore the deep waters of the words people say. As we model this, we hope those we counsel can do the same in their own relationships to begin to know and love one another better.

Questions for Reflection

Do you have a tendency to get lost in the details of a conversation or allow your counselees to do so? How can you allow the concept of an entry gate in conversation to keep focused on the heart of the matter?

[1] Paul Tripp, “Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change,” (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002).

[2] Larry Crabb and Lawrence J Crabb, “Inside Out,” (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1998).

(This post was originally published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website.)